Okay, I'm going to do the impossible: I'm going to explain how to properly pronounce the many different sounds of spoken and sung Japanese, without using sound files!! Hahaha! Well, sometimes our ears can only pick up so much, and we need extensive verbal descriptions of the sound so it's easier to process. I have excellent ears (have always been good at impersonating various voices) and don't learn well from detailed descriptions, but I'm hoping to create something with which the auditorily-challenged masses can identify ^_- (*just as a note, I use American TV-English for most of my examples. Sorry if that's not the kind you speak.)
First, we'll list the basic Japanese alphabet, using roman characters:
a, i, u, e, o, ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, sa, shi, su, se, so, ta, chi, tsu, te, to, na, ni, nu, ne, no, ha, hi, fu (or "hu"), he, ho, ma, mi, mu, me, mo, ya, yu, yo, ra, ri, ru, re, ro, wa, o (or "wo"), n
To describe it in simplest terms, Japanese has 5 vowels: a, i, u, e, and o. You may say, "yeah, yeah, 5 vowels, just like English". BZZZ!! English does not have just 5 vowels. In addition to father, bee, screw, end, and flow, we also have the dead vowels, like in the words pat, bit, and duh. As you can see, we do warp some of the pure vowels into ugly, flatter sounds. Japanese vowels, however, stay pure and constant.
But the discussion does not stop there. Just as in English, the Japanese language uses diphthongs (putting 2 or more vowel sounds together at once). The most common are "ai", "ei", and "oi", though, as mathematics dictates, there are many more permutations. Diphthongs are rather straightforward, however. Since the sounds of the pure vowels that make up these sounds themselves do not change, I don't need to discuss them in that much detail. I'm more concerned with describing the tone and brightness of these vowels.
Generally speaking, Japanese vowels are bright. Anyone who's sung in a choir will probably understand what I'm talking about when I say a vowel is "bright" or "dark". By changing the shape of your lips and the inside shape of your mouth, you can manipulate how a vowel sounds to make it sound more "bright" or "dark".
How to pronounce "a"
To demonstrate this for yourself, say the word "father". The "a" vowel sound in this word is relatively neutral.
Now, say the word "dad". Notice how harsh it sounds. This is what we call a "bright" vowel (or, in this case, a bright "a"). This is the sort of tone we use when we scream, "ahhhh!!!"
Now, say the word "fawn" (and if you're familiar, say this in a posh-British accent). Notice now how the "ah" sound of the vowel has mutated into something closer to "oh". This is what we call a "dark" vowel.
Though "father", "dad", and "fawn" all use the "a" vowel, you can hear how they are different in sound. "Dad" is "a" in its brightest form, and "fawn" is "a" in its darkest form. English vowels, in general, tend to be towards the neutral version of this scale. Posh-British English vowels tend to be darker, and French and Japanese vowels tend to be brighter.
The brightness of the Japanese "a", though it varies from speaker to speaker, tends to fall somewhere between "dad" and "father". Listen for this in spoken Japanese and you'll see what I mean. Listen to Japanese singers hold out words that end on an "a" vowel, and you'll notice it's usually a little brighter than a pure "ah". Another illustration would be to compare pop singers to musical theater singers. Pop singers (good ones, anyway) will tend to have more neutral "a" vowels, while musical theater singers (and Clay Aiken : p ) sing with brighter tones… (and, incidentally, so do I ^^; Yaaaaay people with naturally bright, metallic voices!)
So I spent all that time simply talking about the "a" vowel… Hahaha~… Well, it can get pretty technical if you're a perfectionist. Just try and grasp the "bright" and "dark" concepts, since I'll use these to explain the other vowels…also keep in mind that everyone's "a" is different slightly. Just like a fingerprint…
How to pronounce "i"
…This is probably the easiest vowel for American-English speakers to pronounce properly. Just think light and bright and never pronounce it as a dead vowel like in big.
Exceptions: Some pop and rock singers will tweak the pronunciation of the Japanese "i" to make it sound more harsh/cool. It slightly changes to a more dead-vowel. (Gackt does this a lot).
ALSO NOTE sometimes the "i" sound is dropped all together in words (though much less often than "u"... as you'll read below). Soshite (and then) is pronounced "soshte", for example...
How to pronounce "u"
This is a little more difficult to describe. It's not a deep, dark sound like the sound the King of Town makes when he says, "ooh! ooh!" …(sorry if you're not a homestarrunner.com fan ^^;). Again, it's a very bright sound. Think of some surfer-guy saying, "kewl" or "duuuuude". Or, if you're familiar with German, think of u-umlaut. Think of Ernest (from "Hey Vern, it's Ernest") when he goes, "eeeeeeeewwww"….
Or, if you're unfamiliar with all of these examples, round your lips to make a rich, dark "ooh" sound, then instead of saying "ooh", say "eeee" instead. The sound produced sounds similar to the Japanese "u". Just remember, keep it bright and nasally… and listen to spoken/sung examples.
Exceptions: when Japanese is sung and stylized, some Japanese singers will really butcher "u". Listen to rock-style singers like Gackt or the recent Ayu and you'll hear their "u" pronounced like the English "uh" (as in "duh"). (Think in Ayu's song "I am…" where she goes, in the second chorus, "Atashi wa zutto tatta hitotsu no kotoba o sagashiteru or in "Never Ever" where she sings, "kimi wa nani o inoru".)
Another way singers butcher "u" is that they'll make it very dark and smooth-sounding. Voice actor Hayashi Nobutoshi is guilty of this (the dude who voiced Tasuki). Boy-bands (like V6) also tend to use this style, probably because it sounds more Afro-American, smooth, and sexy. This is not how it should be spoken, however.
ALSO NOTE that the "u" sound itself is often dropped all together. The word "suki" (like) is pronounced like the English word "ski", NOT "su-ki". ~des(u), ~mas(u), Tas(u)ki, uts(u)kushii, etc. are more examples...
How to pronounce "e"
DON'T PRONOUNCE IT "EI"!!! I absolutely detest how Americans can't seem to hear the difference between the pure "eh" vowel sound and the diphthong "ei" sound. When singing Latin songs, many choirs accidentally pronounce "a-le-lu-ia" as "a-lei-lu-ia". It's the same with Japanese. Many Americans trying to pronounce Japanese will say "ame" as "amei" or "namae" as "namaei". This sounds really lame.
It's just plain "e". "Bed", "let", "mess"… And its brightness is just about the same as in those English words.
Exceptions: …I just told you to never pronounce "e" as "ei", but singers do this sometimes ^^; If a word ends with an "e", sometimes singers will add a little "i" to the end of it to give it twang. Also, some singers will use proper singing and darken the vowel a little (like Gackt's dramatic last line of the chorus of Seki-Ray, "Sekirei no yasashisa ni dakare"… Also, Utada Hikaru uses darker vowels in general. Good examples of her darker "e"s come in Sakura Drops when she sings "koi o shite, owari o tsuge…")
How to pronounce "o"
Wow, down to the last vowel, finally… This is another toughy, though.
American-English "o"s are very lazy. Our mouths open slightly and our lips round ever so slightly as the inside of our mouths makes a slight dome.
Japanese "o"s, however, require more energy to pronounce. Form your lips into a tight circle, as if you were going to say the English "ooh". Now, pull your tongue down a little so that the inside of your mouth is more dome-like, open your lips just a smidge and say "oh". It should be a bit darker and more clear than the English "oh"… Or if that's too confusing, just do your best impersonation of Jabba the Hut laughing "ohhh-ho-ho-ho-ho"… Then just brighten it up a bit.
Like I said, this is very hard to describe, so taking these basic rules, listen to some spoken Japanese and try to imitate what you hear.
Exceptions: As if "o" weren't confusing enough already, singers change it around, too! Again, I'll use Ayu's I am… as an example, since that's a perfect example of a "rock-Japanese accent". At the very start of the song, when she sings a-capella, she finishes with "koko ni iru no…" and holds out the "o". You may notice that this is not a pure Japanese "o". It's instead an "o" with a silent English "r" added to the end (which could also be described as a slight dead "i".) She does this a lot in the song Naturally as well.
And we're finally on to consonants! Damn, this's taking forever…
You'll notice the Japanese alphabet basically takes the vowels "a, i, u, e, o" and then repeats them over and over again, attaching consonants to each vowel. Ka, ki, ku, ke, ko is pretty straightforward. Just pronounce the vowels as you did on their own, adding a light "k" in front (like the "k" in "kill").
Sa, shi, su, se, so requires more explanation, however. Keep your "s" light in "sa, su, se, so". As for why the second sound is "shi" instead of "si"… I'm not really sure ^^; Some speakers of Tohoku-ben (the dialect where I stayed) do pronounce it as "si" instead of "shi", but that is very rare. The rest of the population pronounces it as "shi". But don't fall into the trap of pronouncing it as the English "she". That's incorrect. The "sh" part of it is made with light smiling lips, not with funnel-lips that English speakers use for their "sh". The result is lighter and quieter and slightly more hissing.
Ta, chi, tsu, te, to… another confusing line where two of the sounds are not what they should logically be ^^; Again, the "t" in Japanese is lighter than the "t" in English. If you speak Spanish, think of that "t". It's much lighter and not as spitty as the English "t". As for the "ch", it's also a bit lighter than what we'd use for the word "cherry". Consider "ch" more of a "tsh" (with the Japanese "sh"). As for tsu, take the last sound of the English word cats and stick a Japanese "u" to the end.
Na, ni, nu, ne, no… almost no explanation needed. Just keep your "n"s relatively light, like you're slightly congested.
Ha, hi, fu, he, ho is another column where one of the syllables doesn't make sense. Some people do still romanize the middle syllable as "hu", but that is misleading, as is "fu" (but I think "fu" is closer to the sound than "hu", so I romanize it as "fu"). Ha, hi, he, and ho are easy, but for "fu", pretend you're blowing out a candle and then attach a voiced "u" to the end. That's close to what you want. Just use much less air as you would to normally blow out a candle, and you've pretty much got it.
Ma, mi, mu, me, mo - no explanation needed.
Ya, yu, yo First you might wonder why there's no "yi" or "ye". Japanese used to have those characters, but did away with them since they sounded exactly the same as "i" and "e". When you think about it, all "y" really does to a vowel is to add a harsh "i" before it. Therefore, "ya" could just as correctly be written as "ia". The only difference is that "ya" combines the "i" and "a" much faster, while in "ia", the "i" and "a" stay separate… That's all you really need to know to pronounce "ya", "yu", and "yo"…
Ra, ri, ru, re, ro is a pretty tough column to describe. Some people say the Japanese "r" is half way between English "r" and "l". Others say it's like a Latin "r". Some say it's like a soft, Spanish "d"… But in reality, it's one of those sounds that varies from speaker to speaker and varies depending where it occurs in a word.
I can't describe in writing how to "properly" pronounce this, since there are so many ways, but I'll give you a general rule and exercise to practice. First, say the English "la". Where was your tongue? It should have touched against the back of your upper row of teeth. Now say a harsh, English "ra" (as in "raw"). Where was your tongue that time? Curled waaaaaaay back, the tip of it almost touching the soft part of the back of the roof of your mouth. Now, without saying anything, put your mouth in position to say "ra". Still, without saying anything, keep your tongue in the same shape, but move the tip of it forward, along the roof of your mouth so it's almost in position to say "la". Now, say a very light English "ra". What you produce should be pretty dang close to the proper Japanese "ra". Then, apply this principle to "ri", "ru", "re", and "ro"… Just practice a lot until your tongue gets tired ^^;
So where exactly should the tongue be along the roof of the mouth to pronounce the Japanese "r"? About where your tongue is to pronounce "t". Notice how it's close to the back of your teeth, but still not quite touching. This is about where your tongue should be to pronounce the Japanese "r". So actually, the Japanese "r" uses a similar mouth/tongue position as the English "l", but the actual voicing of the consonant is similar to the English "r". This is what makes it so difficult to grasp, but once you've got it, it's very easy. It takes a lot of work to say the English "r", but hardly any strain to say the Japanese "r", which is a lazy sound. Oh well, just practice.
And then, there are also exceptions! Again, a rock-Japanese accent will pronounce "r" a little closer to the English "r". Sometimes a Japanese person will also roll the "r" (like in Spanish) to emphasize something (like if he's exasperated).
Wa First, where does "w" exactly originate? It's just "u" with another vowel after it. So, "wa" is actually "ua". Using this principle, say "ua" with a Japanese "u" and a Japanese "a". It should sound different from the English "wa" (like in "water"), and should not have a very strong "w" sound to it. Don't move your lips forward into a small circle to start the sound as you would in English. The Japanese "wa" can even be spoken without moving your lips at all. It's VERY lazy.
Wo (or o) This is the "particle-o", as in "Watashi o tasukete kudasai", not to be confused with the "o" that's used in words (like "obi"). It's not really much different from the other "o", except that sometimes in songs, singers pronounce it as a soft "wo" (made by sticking a Japanese "u" before a Japanese "o"). Also, when using it in a sentence, there's no glottal stop (anyone else know what that is? ^^;) What I mean, is it can slur from the end of the previous word instead of being spoken with attack.
And finally, we're at n! … It's really unfortunate that the official romanization of Japanese decided to write the "n" character as "n" (or "m") because English speakers confuse that with a hard "n" sound, and it really is not "n" or "m" in pronunciation... it's just a closing of the lips (or curling of the tongue at the back of the throat) at the end of the word, to sharpen the end of the word and to usually make the pitch fall (or in Tohoku-ben's case, the pitch sometimes rises here... which is what makes it sound hick-ish)
To be blunt, it's a grunt.
Anyone who's been to Japan will know what I'm talking about. This is taken out of dialogue in poetic anime/drama/etc, but the Japanese grunt A LOT. Especially in polite/nervous conversation or lazy conversation. Once you've grasped the grunt, you can communicate ^^;
Another note is that when another word follows a word that ended in "n", the pronunciation is often affected. A good example is "san zen en" (3000 yen). Between "zen" and "en", something happens… the "n" at the end of "zen" is simply a tongue-curl in the back of the throat, which is the exact position we use to form words that begin with the English "y" (which really is just "i" followed by some other vowel), which is why it ends up sounding like "san ze ien" (or "san zen yen")... which in turn is probably why we call their currency "yen" instead of "en"....
"n" is very interesting…